(Reuters) - Iran has executed British-Iranian national Alireza Akbari, the judiciary's Mizan news agency reported on Saturday, after sentencing the former Iranian deputy defence minister to death on charges of spying for Britain. Here are some details about Akbari and his case: \- He served as deputy defence minister when Ali Shamkhani was minister from 1997 to 2005, part of the administration of reformist President Mohammad Khatami. He had been a close ally of Shamkhani - currently the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council - since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. \- He served i...
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Official who refused to cooperate with illegal AZ hand-count describes threatening environment in resignation letter
Elections Director Lisa Marra repeatedly explained — to the supervisors, to reporters, and, finally, to a judge — that she would not break the law and release the ballots from her custody, as two Republican supervisors and the county recorder had ordered her to do.
“I believe that is a felony,” Marra testified during a Nov. 4 court hearing challenging the full hand count. The judge later ruled that the full hand count would be illegal.
Now Marra is leaving her post. Her departure after five years running elections in the rural southern Arizona county leaves many residents there concerned about the accuracy and security of future elections. Marra, also president of the Election Officials of Arizona, is known across the nation as a fierce defender of election integrity.
County Democratic Party Chairwoman Elisabeth Tyndall said it was reassuring that a trusted person such as Marra was running elections during the controversies, as she “wasn’t going to just let the election deniers have their way with our votes or our ballots.”
“It is kind of scary what may happen going forward,” Tyndall said, “without having someone as knowledgeable and brave as Lisa in that office.”
Marra resigned through a letter to the county from her attorney, she confirmed to Votebeat on Tuesday. Marra is to be employed by the county for 15 more days.
Marra’s attorney wrote in the letter that her working environment was threatening, both physically and emotionally, and she was publicly disparaged, according to the Washington Post, which first reported on her resignation and the letter.
Marra said Tuesday night that she couldn’t provide a copy of the letter or details about it, since it’s a human resources claim.
“Sad their actions have come to this,” she said, apparently in reference to the Republican supervisors.
Marra is one of many election officials across the state and country who have left their roles in the face of harassment and pressure to defend themselves and their work against unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. In the last few years in Arizona, longtime elections directors in Pima, Yavapai, and Pinal counties, as well as recorders in Yavapai and Yuma counties, have stepped down.
Marra departs as the supervisors prepare to decide if they should reorganize who is responsible for elections in the county, according to a draft work session agenda obtained by Votebeat. In Arizona, election duties are typically split between recorders, who manage early voting and voter registration, and election directors, who manage most other aspects of election administration.
Republican Supervisor Peggy Judd submitted a request for a Feb. 7 meeting that will discuss, among other election-related topics, “better practices involving possible re-organization of responsible parties.” Judd told Votebeat she was busy and could not immediately talk on Wednesday morning.
Marra has worked for the county since 2012 and has been elections director since 2017.
As the president of the Election Officials of Arizona, after the 2020 election she became an unofficial spokesperson for election administrators, staunchly defending the accuracy of elections during the state Senate’s review of Maricopa County’s ballots led by the Cyber Ninjas.
She’s known in her county for openly taking constituent questions about the process. Tami Birch, a Bisbee resident, said she doesn’t know what she will do without being able to pick up the phone and call Marra. She considers it a loss not just for the county but for the entire state.
“We are losing one of the most dedicated, follow-the-rules, honest, responsive people that I have ever met in the elections system,” Birch said.
Secretary of State Adrian Fontes said Marra’s departure is a “heavy blow to the voters served by the Cochise County Government.”
Bisbee resident Sheri Van Horsen said county residents were stressed when the supervisors pursued the full hand count and were comforted to know Marra was there.
“This is someone who is sanity in a storm of ridiculousness,” Van Horsen said.
County Supervisor Ann English, the only Democrat on the three-member board, complimented Marra and her commitment to following the law when under pressure.
“She never wavered, no matter what the pressure was from outside,” English said.
English said she doesn’t know how the county will find a proper replacement. Birch agrees.
“I don’t know who could take her place, with all her experience, all the strength of putting her foot down, saying, ‘No, I’m following the statute. No, you can’t do that,’” Birch said.
The monthslong saga in Cochise County started more than a month before the midterms, when Republican Supervisors Tom Crosby and Peggy Judd, and Recorder David Stevens, began talking about hand-counting all ballots in the election after the typical machine count, an effort that election experts said would threaten the accuracy of the election and confuse voters.
The county attorney and secretary of state’s office told the supervisors the full hand count would be illegal. State law requires counties to conduct a partial hand count audit of ballots after every election if political parties participate, but does not allow for all ballots to be audited.
As the administrator of elections, Marra is in charge of this statutorily required partial hand count. While the Recorder David Stevens was supportive of expanding that hand count to all ballots cast, Marra and county attorneys said it was illegal. Butthe supervisors to ask Stevens to conduct the full hand count anyway.
Despite the judge ruling that the full hand count would be illegal, the day after the election, Stevens conducted the first step of a full hand count by selecting which ballots would be hand-counted. Under her statutory duty, Marra did as well, and she completed the official, partial hand count a few days later. As concerns spread that Stevens would attempt to do his own hand count as well, Marra reassured the public that the ballots were locked up.
“Security is safe in the ballot cage in warehouse under camera,” Marra told Votebeat at the time. “He does not have access to that building. Access is strictly limited.”
That’s when Crosby and Judd sued her, personally and in her professional role. The lawsuit claimed that Marra had refused to comply with the supervisors’ orders by not conducting the expanded hand count they ordered, not permitting the recorder and his personnel to access the counting center, and not turning over the ballots to the recorder.
Marra was forced to obtain outside legal counsel to defend herself. Shortly after filing that lawsuit, the supervisors withdrew it, saying that they did not want to interfere with an expected statewide recount. But the suit clearly marked a low point.
“No all day court which is great because I’ve lost so many days dealing with this during a major election,” Marra said on Twitter after the supervisors withdrew the lawsuit. “Fact remains elected officials filed a personal lawsuit against a tenured local Gov’t employee with an impeccable record. Not just in official capacity, sued me personally.”
The supervisors then refused to certify the election results, only voting to finalize them after ordered to do so by a court.
Residents have now started a recall petition for Crosby and are working to gather signatures. At the same time, supervisors at the proposed upcoming work session, which has not yet been posted publicly, plan to discuss not only the reorganization of election administration but also hand-counting ballots.
Even after the hand count drama, Marra appeared to remain committed to the job, saying two days after the lawsuit was withdrawn that the reason why election officials didn’t walk out of the job was because “it’s about every voter and every ballot.”
“Honored every single day to get to do this work,” she wrote. “Especially where it’s needed the most. #Arizona.”
Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
During his FBI career, McGonigal oversaw investigations of Deripaska and other oligarchs suspected of various crimes, including espionage. Now the exposure of his illegal connection with Deripaska may provide fresh insights into Trump's tainted victory.
On October 4, 2016, a month before Election Day, FBI director James Comey appointed McGonigal as special agent in charge of the FBI counterintelligence division in New York City, an exceptionally influential job that he took over at an extraordinarily sensitive moment. The bureau already had open investigations of both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican adversary Trump. The Clinton investigation concerned "her emails," of course, and the Trump investigation involved his campaign's Russian connections.
What followed McGonigal's sudden ascent to power in the New York FBI office were two seemingly separate incidents, occurring days before the election, that had a fateful impact. On October 28, Comey sent a letter to the Congress publicly announcing that the bureau had resumed its investigation of Clinton due to the discovery of a laptop owned by former Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose spouse Huma Abedin was a top Clinton aide.
Months earlier the Justice Department months had cleared Clinton of any crime, but Comey violated Justice Department guidelines in accusing her of being neglectful about classified information, though it was later revealed that her emails contained no classified documents. (That means zero, zilch, nada, none, nothing.) But then Comey was driven to examine Clinton emails on the Weiner laptop.
Comey's announcement stopped the Clinton campaign's forward momentum and almost certainly cost her the election — even though the FBI director acknowledged on November 2, days before the election, that nearly all of the data on the Weiner laptop duplicated emails the FBI already had seen. None contained any damaging information. Just as Clinton was severely damaged among swing suburban voters, Trump's base voters were galvanized.
While Comey's broadside against Clinton stunned the nation, perhaps nobody should have been shocked. Trump crony Rudolph Giuliani —who for decades maintained a close relationship with Republican-leaning officials in the New York FBI office as the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York — had repeatedly hinted on Fox News in the weeks before the election that the bureau was sitting on a "big surprise" that would vault his candidate to victory.
Meanwhile, on October 31, 2016, the New York Times published a front-page story on that other FBI investigation, known internally as "Crossfire Hurricane," which unlike her emails had gotten no public attention (and inspired no leaks). The headline was declarative and conclusive: "Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia." That false story, exonerating Trump of Kremlin connections that we now know were extensive and incriminating, was pushed by Trump operatives and agents and clearly originated in the New York FBI counterintelligence division — which had played a key role in the beginning of Crossfire Hurricane. It quoted anonymous "law enforcement sources," which did not mean a local police lieutenant.
Before he moved on to other positions at FBI headquarters, McGonigal's career had begun in New York, where he worked closely with James Kallstrom — the right-wing ideologue who headed the New York office for decades. A bosom buddy of Giuliani and Trump, Kallstrom is suspected of leading the pressure campaign that induced Comey to reopen the Clinton investigation. The explicit threat of leaks by agents and former agents like Kallstrom, who reportedly hated Clinton, spurred Comey's disastrous decision and his public announcement, which again violated department policy against election interference.
Damning as those facts may seem, they only get us so far. There is much more to learn before we can understand the full story of 2016. The scrupulously nonpartisan presidential historian Michael Beschloss asked this week whether McGonigal's indictment will lead us closer to the truth. Will the prosecution of McGonigal reveal the details of his relationship with Deripaska, whom he had once investigated before becoming his corrupt stooge? Will Comey provide a full and honest accounting of what happened in the New York FBI office before the election? Will the New York Times examine — and disclose — how that misleading story about Trump and Russia appeared on its front page? Who briefed the Times for that bogus story?
With Trump seeking to return to the White House, the answers to those questions do not merely reckon with the past but are critical to democracy's future. The malign conspirators who first brought that would-be tyrant to power, both foreign and domestic, are still at large.
Pistol-packing Black pastors are fighting to preach while armed — with the help of Republican-connected law firms
The scent of coffee and vanilla wafted from the foyer where the 200 worshippers would mingle and discuss social justice projects after the service.
But as the children's choir sang "God is in Control,” fear filled the church as a sweaty, disheveled man stumbled in, and stood behind the pews.
He clutched a battered backpack.
Congregation deacons who edged closer heard him murmuring to himself. Suddenly, the man screamed, "Get back, demons!"
The deacons grabbed the man and hustled him outside. He opened the backpack for them. It contained t-shirts and a screwdriver. They called 911 — and gave the man cinnamon rolls and coffee to go. They later learned he was schizophrenic and homeless.
No one in the church was harmed that day. Yet for a moment, the pastor, who described the never-before-reported scene with Raw Story on condition that he and his church not be named, had wished he had been carrying his Beretta APX handgun while preaching from the pulpit. He had worked in law enforcement and in security so he would often quip that he had “muscle memory” of a gun at his hip. But he later acknowledged to church elders that he wasn't a skilled enough marksman to shoot someone without accidentally wounding congregants.
The pastor’s predicament — keep houses of worship gun-free or go armed to the pulpit — is no longer novel. Recent, violent attacks on houses of worship — from Texas to South Carolina to Pennsylvania to Alabama — compel Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists alike to protect their congregations while still embracing their missions of welcoming strangers and comforting the sick.
More than four in five Black voters rank crime as their top concern, according to a 2020 Pew Research poll.
And states such as New York, for example, are tackling the problem by banning guns from "sensitive" places throughout the state, including houses of worship.
But not all clergy believe New York state’s approach is correct. They’re willing to fight for their convictions, too: Expect 2023 to bring a pitched legal battle — one with notable political and partisan undertones — over whether guns are the ideal protection God’s shepherds can offer their flocks.
Already, two Black evangelical ministers, a white evangelical pastor, and a synagogue leader are suing to lift that ban.
The results of these cases could have national implications.
A GUN-OWNER’S VIEW FROM THE PULPIT
The two Black pastors suing to pack heat from the pulpit minister in high-crime neighborhoods in Buffalo, N.Y., and nearby Niagara Falls.
One of the pastors, Trinity Baptist Church Rev. Jimmie Hardaway Jr., is so devoted to his Niagara Falls community that he serves as a public school substitute teacher in addition to ministering to his congregation.
His church is near Gluck Park, where volunteers installed colorful playground equipment a few years ago and picnics, block parties, and children’s fun fairs are increasingly common. But locals say that at night, men go there to drink, and fights often escalate into gunfire. Hardaway says he carried a licensed gun for protection before the new ban on firearms in churches became law.
Hardaway's fellow plaintiff is the Rev. Larry Boyd of Open Praise Full Gospel Baptist Church who serves Buffalo's historic Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood — a diverse community dotted with restaurants serving Polish, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi and soul food.
The predominantly Black East Side neighborhood recently won $10 million in grants for streetlights, a new park and farmers' market. But gun violence from within threatens East Buffalo, and last year, an out-of-town white supremacist traveled from across the state and killed 10 people at the local Tops Friendly Markets grocery store.
Hardaway has befriended New York State Jewish Gun Club founder Tzvi Waldman, a leader in Rockland County’s Hasidic community, after meeting in a Facebook discussion group focused on gun laws and small businesses. Waldman, too, is suing to lift New York state’s gun ban for synagogues.
Waldman introduced Hardaway to the law firm Cooper & Kirk — a firm that Hardaway said was looking for religious leaders to be pro bono plaintiffs.
Waldman told Raw Story that the Hasidic faithful don’t use phones or drive cars on Sabbath so they sometimes worry about anti-Semitic encounters as they walk to worship. He says he believes Jewish worshippers are safer if he's armed whether they are praying or communing indoors or out.
His club, meanwhile, teaches gun safety as well as first-aid and marksmanship.
“If you’re prepared to take a life you should learn how to save a life,” he explained. The religious leaders’ legal fight is about defending innocent people from those who will do them harm.
“We don't want to be a militia. We don't hate government," Waldman said, adding that hopes for the day when gun violence will be an interfaith issue with churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples sharing information and searching for solutions.
"Military personnel live in a different universe from ours when they train to defend themselves and others. Not everyone can put themselves in the combat mindset," Waldman said.
LAWYERS WITH POWERFUL GOP CLIENTS
Cooper & Kirk is no mom-and-pop outfit. On the contrary, it’s built itself into a powerful legal force, particularly in conservative circles.
For example, the Miami Herald reported that it earned $5.9 million from legal wrangling spawned by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis culture war sorties, including blocking felons from voting, opposing vaccination requirements and advocating for the Parental Rights in Education bill, or so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill because of its prohibition on discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with young public school students.
Cooper & Kirk’s other Republican clients include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, former national security adviser John Bolton, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Hardaway told Raw Story there’s one key difference between himself and many of Cooper & Kirk’s other clients.
"I'm a Democrat," he said.
Hardaway has no plans to convert to the GOP.
"I just accepted free legal help offered from an effective law firm,” he explained.
But he’s nevertheless been bombarded with right-wing media interview requests.
"Everyone wants to be my friend," Hardaway said. "They want me to say I agree with them on guns. But I don’t agree on everything although I’d like to build on what we have in common.”
Hardaway, for example, disagrees with GOP opposition to universal background checks. He supports red flag alerts, which the National Rifle Association and its affiliates detest. And he supports a ban on gun sales to those convicted of domestic violence which GOP elected officials fight against.
Hardaway expressed gratitude toward Cooper & Kirk lawyers who research the right-wingers requesting interviews with him then share their candid assessments of the interviewers with Hardaway. It helps him deflect those who might make him or his church uncomfortable.
"Cooper & Kirk researched our church's social media before they represented us to make sure we weren't crazy or strange," Hardaway recalls.
Cooper & Kirk managing partner and Harvard magna cum laude alum David Thompson declined Raw Story's interview request, citing a heavy workload.
A separate lawsuit against New York involves the white evangelicals at His Family Tabernacle in the low-crime village of Horseheads, N.Y.
First Liberty Institute, a Texas law firm with powerful GOP connections, represents the church’s leader, the Rev. Michael Spencer, who told Charisma News — an online religious magazine that prints "prophecies" of Trump's return to power — that he fears attacks by "lunatics, whether they be demon-possessed, whether they just be individuals that are God-haters."
First Liberty Institute’s CEO, Kelly Shackelford, has been friends with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for 30 years.
The Associated Press reports that when Paxton took office in 2015, "his first, most prominent hires were First Liberty attorneys.” First Liberty lawyers were on the 2016 Trump White House transition team.
Spencer is also represented by President George W. Bush's U.S. Solicitor General, Paul Clement, one of an elite handful of lawyers who has argued more than 100 U.S. Supreme Court cases.
Now in private practice, the New York Times called Clement a "rock star" among oil industry lawyers. Clement's unswerving devotion to the National Rifle Association exploded into melodrama on June 23, the day he won a case for an NRA ally.
Minutes after Clement's victory, his employer, Kirkland & Ellis, announced it would never take another Second Amendment case. Clement and SCOTUS litigator Kim Murphy immediately resigned from Kirkland and announced they would found their own firm with the NRA as a client.
The month before this legal clash, America was devastated by massacres at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and the mass shooting in Buffalo. Social media trolls defending the NRA by posting bogus false flag theories prompted lawyers to debate whether scorched earth gun enthusiasts were a good fit for their talents.
Shira Feldman, an attorney for the nonprofit Brady United Against Gun Violence, said that powerful, conservative law firms can afford to take on pro bono gun cases.
"If a law firm representing the gun industry sues a state or city and wins, they could be eligible for attorneys' fees paid by the state or city," Feldman told Raw Story. "Litigation can be long and expensive, and municipal budgets are often very limited. Fortunately, this hasn't discouraged cities and towns from continuing to pass and defend important life-saving gun laws that keep our communities safe."
LEARN TO SHOOT BEFORE TAKING A GUN TO CHURCH
Paul Lake grew up in rural Alabama with a family who taught him gun safety and marksmanship. A former policeman and volunteer EMT, he trained a safety team for his church years ago. He left a corporate world job to launch Dallas-based Sentry One Consulting whose clients range from congregations of 200 to megachurches of 15,000.
And Lake doesn't believe everyone should handle a gun, "not even in the Wild West."
He advises against pastors being armed in pulpits regardless of their shooting skills.
"Most congregations want pastors focused on their sermons and their roles of comforting and guiding congregations," Lake said.
Lake advises churches to hire off-duty police for security.
Since that’s not financially feasible for all places of worship, Lake teaches safety teams to stop potentially dangerous people before they enter a sanctuary. Doorway greeters and parking lot guides should warn each other and sanctuary deacons using walkie-talkies or phone apps when they spot a disoriented or angry person.
Pastors, in particular, should be aware of worshippers' mental health triggers; job loss, divorce, an IRS audit.
These steps can prove more powerful — and effective — than any pistol-packing pastor.
"If the only thing you know about guns is which end to point at the bad guy, you aren't going to be able to help a church safety team," Lake told Raw Story.
For armed church security guards, Lake and his Sentry employees test volunteers, who must clear their guns from their holsters and jackets, unlock the safety and shoot accurately in less than two seconds. Lake sees the test as literally life and death. He studied security camera video of a 2019 Texas church shooting. In less than five seconds, a stranger whips out a sawed-off shotgun to kill an armed volunteer and an usher. If a worshiper is too slow, Sentry urges him to take an unarmed protective role.
CAN GUN VIOLENCE BRING NEW VOTES TO THE GOP?
In struggling segments of a city, even residents who never enter urban houses of worship can appreciate their impact. Sociologists describe houses of worship as oases that keep a neighborhood vibrant in harsh times by offering free pantries, social hubs, mentoring and a moral compass.
During Buffalo’s December blizzard, for example, a pastor opened his church to more than 154 neighbors without power and shared his family’s stocked fridge for days.
Likewise, when a congregant is killed or wounded by gun violence, the church is there to comfort the bereaved long after the candle-lit sidewalk altars of photos and flowers disappear.
In 2020, pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety surveyed more than 1,000 Black voters about their most urgent issues. Gun violence was a top priority. But 96 percent wanted a candidate who supports background checks for all gun sales, a position the GOP base emphatically opposes. And 93 percent support disarming domestic abusers and red flag laws.
While the days when houses of worship could comfortably leave their doors open all night for lost souls searching for supernatural comfort have largely passed, Pastors such as Hardaway still hope they can be what Psalm 91 describes as a fortress where visitors don’t fear the “terror of night nor the arrow that flies by day.”
While the court battles over defensive weapons in churches ensue, Lake urges church safety teams to remember their primary mission — being an ambassador of their faith, and using that faith as a shield and protection.
Lake explains: "A greeter could say, "Brother, it looks as if something is troubling you or weighing on your heart. Would you like to talk or pray with me?"
A teammate can call 911, just in case. As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10, be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.